It’s a dream our forefathers held that has never faded for some—chucking it all and heading West, where everything seems a little more open, wild and well, sunnier. Jonathan Evison’s West of Here is just the latest installment in the notion that heading toward the mountains and the mighty Pacific makes for a better life. Here are 10 more great books about going West.
Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, William Cronon (1991): Chicago is, of course, America’s second city—second, that is, only to New York in economic and cultural importance. It was once on the edge of the West, too. By historian William Cronon’s thoughtful account, making a modern metropolis of Chicago and conquering the interior West were thoroughly related processes.
Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West, Wallace Stegner (1954): John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War hero, never met a canyon he couldn’t climb or a river he couldn’t brave, and he did plenty of both when he explored the Colorado River on two voyages in the 1860s and ’70s. He did meet his match, though, in a stubborn Congress, which refused to follow his recommendations on how to parcel out the public domain in the settlement of the West—piling on, as he warned, “a legacy of conflict” for future generations.
Winter Brothers: A Season at the Edge of America, Ivan Doig (1980): The Pacific Northwest was explored early, but it took generations to convert it from raw frontier to megalopolis. Ivan Doig, a Montana-based novelist, blends diaries kept by a pioneer entrepreneur, James Gilchrist Swan, with his own reflections about life in that rainy place. Of particular interest is the sympathetic attention both writers give to the Native peoples of the Washington coast.
Filaree, Marguerite Noble (1979): Much of the settlement of the West was work done by rough men capable of extreme violence in the pursuit of great profit—or even a modest livelihood. In much history of the time and region, women and children are considered afterthoughts, if considered at all. Noble’s searing novel about the hardships those pioneer women and children endured is a minor classic, often overlooked.
“It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West, Richard White (1991): With Elliott West and Patricia Nelson Limerick, among other historians, Richard White is at the forefront of a generation of scholars who, beginning about a quarter-century ago, began to pay close attention to women, children, and ethnic minorities—some of which were once majorities—in the shaping of the American West. This magisterial history reflects that multicultural approach, which has since become standard and rightfully so.
McTeague, Frank Norris (1899): Speaking of rough men, Frank Norris’ novel, originally published in the last year of the 19th century, offers any number of them, all circling an orbit around a dimwitted San Francisco dentist named McTeague. He has only a little imagination but a well of greed, but even there he’s no match for his wife, who longs to live up on the hills with the tycoons. And what does that aspiration get them? One of the most memorable endings of any work of fiction, that’s what.
Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, Rebecca Solnit (2010): And speaking of San Francisco, few writers know the place as well as native daughter Rebecca Solnit. Her latest book is a thoroughly fascinating exploration of the definitively western city, remade countless times since it first rose as a seaport for the gold camps farther inland. Depicting such things as sites of political protest and the gay subculture, butterfly habitats, dividing lines between conservative and liberal areas, and the rapidly redeveloping South of Market district, Solnit deftly shows that San Francisco is still very much a work in progress.
Roughing It, Mark Twain (1872): Mark Twain logged time in such western cities in-the-making as Virginia City, Nev., Reno and San Francisco before settling down in the long-settled climes of Connecticut. Among his best-loved chronicles of his years out West is Roughing It, an often affectionate, often exasperated look at the gold miners, settlers, politicos and wheeler-dealers who tamed the region. The hero of the piece? Twain himself, perhaps, though for our money the winning character is a lanky coyote who perfectly illustrates the vanity of human wishes.
California: A History, Kevin Starr (2005): California, that most settled of all settled western venues, is a special place and a special case, too. So the distinguished historian and librarian Kevin Starr has noted from the start of his multivolume magnum opus on the state, published over two decades by Oxford University Press. That great work was summarized, for readers on the go, in the single-volume California: A History in 2005. Los Angeles, for instance, “is the second-largest Mexican city on the planet and a ranking Korean, Iranian, Armenian, and Ethiopian metropolis.” Were metropolitan Los Angeles to calve off into its own state, its population would be 20.6 million, making it the fourth-largest in the country. The superlatives go on in this utterly superlative work.
True Grit, Charles Portis (1968): Joel and Ethan Coen may have just adapted this classic into one hell of a film, but readers should still pick up Charles Portis’ great novel about the last days of the Wild West. Read it alongside a viewing of John Wayne’s final film, The Shootist, to complete the closing-of-an-era feel. The setting is the frontier, to be sure, not the towering alpine parks of the Coens’ movie and its predecessor from 1969, but instead the remote backwoods of western Arkansas and hill country of Oklahoma. Who will prevail, the cowardly killer Tom Chaney or the tough-as-nails lawman Rooster Cogburn and 14-year-old Mattie Ross? Even if you know the answer, read the book.